Is it time to write the GCC's epitaph?

Is it time to write the GCC's epitaph?
Comment: Now that they feel relatively secure, GCC members - particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE - are more confident in attacking others, threatening the GCC's union, writes Emile Nakhleh.
6 min read
17 Jul, 2017
Riyadh's continued vengeance against Doha is driving the fracturing of the GCC [Anadolu]

The ongoing Saudi-UAE siege of Qatar and the ensuing friction within the GCC are pounding the final nail in the coffin of this organisation.

The regional grouping of the Gulf family-ruled, oil-producing Arab states, which was born on 26 May 1981 in response to growing regional threats, was flawed from the start and therefore doomed to fail.

The Saudi-UAE vengeful action against Qatar belies the frequently-voiced public commitments by rulers to the GCC. 

The demise of the GCC reflects the realities of deep-seated rivalries among the ruling families, which the British government in the 19th and 20th centuries helped ensconce over specific territories in the Arabian Peninsula to serve Britain's imperial interests. 

Since the late 18th and early 19th centuries, tribal rivalries among and between al-Sabah of Kuwait, al-Khalifa of Bahrain, al-Thani of Qatar, al-Nuhayyan of Abu Dhabi, al-Maktum of Dubai, al-Qasimi of Sharja, al-BuSaid of Oman, and others often resulted in bloody wars, overthrow of rulers by their own kin, pillaging of villages and fishing and pearl-diving areas, and frequent military confrontations across the Arabian Desert.  

Even as late as the 1968-1971 period when tribal rulers were discussing the envisioned unity of the Trucial Coast emirates, much dissension occurred, which almost led to the collapse of the talks. The disagreements were such that by 1971, Bahrain and Qatar quit the talks and formed independent states. 

Shortly thereafter, six of the seven emirates established the state of the UAE. The seventh, Ras al-Khayma, joined months later. 

It was clear then that fear brought rulers together

It was clear then, that fear brought rulers together. Unlike the European Union, they were not ready to surrender the slightest bit of their sovereignty for the good of the alliance. The desire to preserve family rule drove them to form the GCC.

Now that they feel relatively secure, GCC members, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE are less hesitant to act against other members, thereby leading to the demise of the alliance. Perhaps it's time for them to write the epitaph of the GCC and move on.  

From the very beginning, Saudi Arabia saw itself as first among equals within the GCC despite the founding declaration giving each of them equal status. Riyadh felt that the smaller GCC sisters should follow its dictates regarding authoritarian domestic governance, restrictions on human rights and freedoms of speech, assembly, and press, demands for political reform, and relations with other countries.

The desire to preserve family rule drove them to form the GCC

Saudi Arabia would define the broad parameters of regional security and stability - driven by a Saudi Sunni, Arab vision with no room for Shia Iran - expecting others to follow. 

Riyadh has viewed Qatar's seeming independence as an affront that should not go "unpunished". Riyadh was particularly upset by at least three streaks that defined Doha's independent action:

Firstly, creating, financing and defending Al Jazeera as a voice of the New Arab. Second came the rejection of Riyadh's (and Cairo's) unproven depiction of the Muslim Brotherhood as a "terrorist" organisation. And lastly, there were its pragmatic relations with Iran.

  Read more: Is 'terrorism' an excuse to take down Qatar?

Riyadh's continued vengeance against Doha is driving the fracturing of the GCC. 

From its inception, the GCC was essentially a security organisation. The emphasis was on developing a GCC force and an internal security architecture for the exchange of intelligence about domestic dissidents and pro-reform activists.

Transitioning from desert to urban tribalism

As these families transitioned from desert tribal groupings to urban tribal structures, thanks to unprecedented oil wealth, they looked for new security arrangements - regional and international - to preserve their status as the last vestige of tribal rule.

Through control and cooptation - again thanks to economic largesse, the GCC ruling potentates devised mechanisms to help them become "modern" ruling families in the 21st century. But no matter how wealthy and modernising, tribal rule is a relic of the past. Its continued control of the pyramid of political power without the participation of citizenry is an aberration that cannot endure.

No matter how wealthy and modernising, tribal rule is a relic of the past

They joined together to preserve their family rule in a precarious region buffeted by a Shia Islamic revolution in Iran, a civil war in Lebanon, a change of leadership in Egypt, an Iraqi-Iranian war, and a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The ruling potentates in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman believed that unity would bring them international recognition and security as state actors rather than as oil producing territories.

They also hoped that such a regime grouping would protect them against perceived regional threats but more importantly against domestic protests and demands for democracy and genuine political reform.

  Read more: The EU and the GCC: Two unions with similar aspirations, but very different realities

While I was conducting research for my book on the GCC in the early 1980s, my interviews showed that Gulf peoples realised early on - as media interviews in Kuwait and Bahrain indicated at the time - that the GCC was an alliance of hereditary, autocratic regimes that was not focused on what their citizens wanted.

I asked a Bahraini businessman what he thought of the GCC, he answered with a colloquial Gulf Arabic, "Hatchi" (talk).  

GCC members rarely acted in unison, opting instead to pursue their national interests independently

Some Gulf citizens told me then that regimes' fear of their own peoples equalled their fear of the Islamic Republic of Iran spreading its revolutionary fervour across to the Arab coast.

The resulting alliance was therefore regime-centric, not people-focused. Nor was it based on social justice, democratic reforms, women's rights, Shia rights or the desire to form a new and a more enduring pact between rulers and ruled.

Deep-seated tensions

Despite the ruling potentates' pledge to work as a group to further the survival of their family rule, in crisis after crisis - from the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s to the rise of the Islamic State in the second decade of this century - GCC members rarely acted in unison, opting instead to pursue their national interests independently. Territorial tensions and jealousies among some of them became so serious that it almost led to open hostilities.

The GCC has been a gathering of rulers without a vision beyond regime survival

The GCC has been a gathering of rulers without vision beyond regime survival. Rulers signed the founding communique without consulting their peoples and without making any effort to sell the new alliance as an EU-type Arab organisation.

Now, 36 years later, the GCC is rapidly becoming superfluous and footnote to Arab regional alliances.

Despite the lofty rhetoric of regional cooperation and the annual summits, GCC states are still unable to resolve some of their deep-seated differences peacefully. The crises that bedevilled the GCC since 1981 have finally brought the organisation to its knees.

Saudi Arabia, the largest and most powerful state within the GCC, shares much of the blame for the demise of the GCC.  Was Riyadh ever truly committed to a regional union on equal footing with other and much smaller members? Doha probably has the answer. 



Emile Nakhleh is a former Senior US Intelligence Officer, Director of the Global and National Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America's Relations with the Muslim World, and The Gulf Cooperation Council: Policies, Problems and Prospects

Follow him on Twitter: @e_Nakhleh

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.